According to an illuminating study from Bain Consulting, some 80 percent of executives from large public corporations believed they were providing "outstanding customer experiences" to consumers. The dismal truth was only 8 percent of their customers agreed that they had an outstanding customer experience.
How can there be this much of a disconnect between customers and corporations? Essentially, it boils down to three basic problems.
Remember the old saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt"? While most often associated with individuals and interpersonal relationships, it also holds true for companies and their customers. In traditional marketing there is a mad rush to get new customers, as opposed to really understanding the ones you already have…which in turn, would help you attract more customers.
There is a scene in "The Player," the 1992 Robert Altman film, in which Tim Robbins' character—a film studio executive—berates his colleagues by asking, "When was the last time any of you have actually gone to the local movie theater?" He suddenly realizes how disconnected both he and his colleagues are from their customers, and the actual contempt they have developed for the very people who support their business and resulting lifestyle.
This is a common criticism of the media, from films to television to news. But it's also true in corporations providing a wide range of consumer or business services. Is it a simple matter of not being able to see the forest from the trees? Or perhaps something almost subconscious in the collective mindset of the organization? There is a sort of low-level simmering contempt within organizations that translates into "We know better than our customers." How else can you explain the results of the Bain study above?
The second problem: as people advance upward in the organization, they lose touch with the people on the front lines who are interacting with customers every day. The number of front-line employees who declare management "just doesn't listen" is not insubstantial.
Even though most corporate leaders will tell you "People are our most important asset," the dirty fact is, most executives are ignorant of what really goes on at that "moment of truth" when their employees engage with the customers. "Ignorant" may be a strong word, but the root of the word is "ignore"—which is exactly what senior-level executives do when they don't either a. go out in into the field; or b. solicit and act upon the intelligence that is being fed upward from the employees on the frontline.
Compare this to the U.S. military, which has long recognized a 19-year-old high school graduate is better equipped to make life-and-death decisions on the ground than his upper-level superiors hundreds of miles away.
The third reason for disconnection is seduction.
Interestingly, the seducer is not a person but an inanimate concept called technology. Too often, senior-level executives are seduced by the newest shiny toy to come out of Silicon Valley, usually touted as the "next big thing" for sales and marketing. The list is long—from CRM systems and Websites, to online advertising and podcasts, to user-generated content and social media.
The technology, in and of itself, is useless; it is only a tool that can be used to solve the problems or address the wants of customers or employees. But the majority of technology initiatives are failures. Why? Because the project sponsors—usually someone at the executive level—actually has underlying contempt for the customers and is ignoring the front-line employees who are at a far lower payer grade (and thus can't be trusted to make good decisions). Ironic, isn't it? Actually, it's both ironic and sad, because so much money is absolutely wasted every year.
So how can you avoid getting disconnected? It's actually quite simple: Get out into the field. Talk with your customers and your frontline employees (not at them). Learn from them. Look at your business through their eyes. Be humble and empathetic.
And when it comes to technology, be sure it is solving a specific problem your customers have. You should know this because you've heard it directly from customers—not a technology vendor.
The job of marketers to be the advocates of their clients' end-customers. They can't help a client if they won't listen to what their customers are saying. Once they all listen and hear, then they can design, market and sell truly great services.
Bob Cooper is the founder and president of Frontier Service Design. a Philadelphia-based consulting firm. He can be reached at BCooper@FrontierServiceDesign.com.